Minnesota sees sharp increase in syphilis cases

A nurse gives a flu vaccination shot into someone's arm.
Cases of syphilis in the state rose to 1,832 last year, an increase of 375 compared to 2021. It can be treated with antibiotics.
Mario Tama | Getty Images

Syphilis cases in Minnesota rose 25 percent in 2022, reaching their highest level in years according to new data from the Minnesota Department of Health.

Syphilis is a sexually-transmitted infection spread through direct contact with a sore.

Cases in the state rose to 1,832 last year, an increase of 375 compared to 2021. New cases were mostly among men, particularly among those who have sex with men, and they were primarily located in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, according to state health officials. 

The infection can also be passed from a pregnant person to their fetus or baby. These congenital syphilis cases also increased last year by 42 percent. Syphilis can cause miscarriages and stillbirths. In children born with syphilis, infections can lead to serious health complications such as deformed bones, severe anemia and brain or nerve problems.

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Health officials said the infections are detectable and easily treated with antibiotics, making this sharp increase in cases “especially troubling.” 

“One of the things we really want is for individuals who are pregnant to talk with their health care providers, and be tested for syphilis three times throughout their pregnancy,” said Christine Jones, STD, HIV and TB section manager at the Health Department. “It can really increase the chances of … syphilis being detected early and getting the appropriate treatment. Because syphilis is curable.”

Cases of other STDs saw a slight decline last year, according to the release. In 2022, there were 262 new cases of HIV, a 12 percent decrease from the previous year. The top two reported STDs in the state also saw decreases last year: chlamydia (2 percent decline) and gonorrhea (15 percent decline).

But state health officials caution that the pandemic may have impacted the collection of data, making predicting trends and comparisons regarding these cases more challenging. For one, Jones said that during stay-at-home orders some testing clinics were closed or only treating people who were symptomatic.

“What we do know is that in many STDs, females who are infected with gonorrhea – and especially chlamydia, and even syphilis – may not have any symptoms, they may be asymptomatic, so they're not going in proactively to seek treatment,” she said.

Jones said that while overall STD rates have declined 5 percent in Minnesota, people should ensure they’re still getting regularly tested, even if they’re asymptomatic, and especially if they’re high risk.

“Early diagnosis and treatment are critical to community health, and we also want to make sure that individual sex partners are treated as well,” she said. “So we see these numbers going up. And we don't really know what the impact [of] COVID was. But what we do know is that STDs, including HIV, are still a major concern in our state.”